It is that time of the year when newspapers, magazines and websites get around to making top 10 lists on various things in the year that was. So here is my list for the top 10 books in the Indian non fiction category (The books appear in a random order).
Breakout Nations – In Pursuit of the Next Economic Miracles – Ruchir Sharma (Penguin/Allen Lane -Rs 599)
The book is based around the notion that sustained economic growth cannot be taken for granted.
Only six countries which are classified as emerging markets by the western world have grown at the rate of 5 percent or more over the last 40 years. Only two of these countries, i.e. Taiwan and South Korea, have managed to grow at 5 percent or more for the last 50 years.
The basic point being that the economic growth of countries falters more often than not. “India is already showing some of the warning signs of failed growth stories, including early-onset of confidence,” Sharma writes in the book.
When Sharma said this in what was the first discussion based around the book on an Indian television channel, Montek Singh Ahulwalia, the deputy chairman of the planning commission, did not agree. Ahulwalia, who was a part of the discussion, insisted that a 7 percent economic growth rate was a given. Turned out it wasn’t. The economic growth in India has now slowed down to around 5.5 percent.
Sharma got his timing on the India economic growth story fizzling out absolutely right.
The last I met him in November he told me that the book had sold around 45,000 copies in India. For a non fiction book which doesn’t tell readers how to lose weight those are very good numbers. (You can read Sharma’s core argument here).
In the Company of a Poet – Gulzar In Conversation with Nasreen Munni Kabir (Rainlight/Rupa -Rs 495)
There is very little quality writing available on the Hindi film industry. Other than biographies on a few top stars nothing much gets written. Gulzar is one exception to this rule. There are several biographies on him, including one by his daughter Meghna. But all these books barely look on the creative side of him. What made Sampooran Singh Kalra, Gulzar? How did he become the multifaceted personality that he did?
There are very few individuals who have the kind of bandwidth that Gulzar does. Other than directing Hindi films, he has written lyrics, stories, screenplays as well as dialogues for them. He has been a documentary film maker as well, having made documentaries on Pandit Bhimsen Joshi and Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. He is also a poet and a successful short story writer. On top of all this he has translated works from Bangla and Marathi into Urdu/Hindi.
In this book, Nasreen Munni Kabir talks to Gulzar and the conversations bring out how Sampooran Singh Kalra became Gulzar. Gulzar talks with great passion about his various creative pursuits in life. From writing the superhit kajrare to what he thinks about Tagore’s English translations. If I had a choice of reading only one book all through this year, this would have to be it.
Durbar – Tavleen Singh (Hachette – Rs 599)
Some of the best writing on the Hindi film industry that I have ever read was by Sadat Hasan Manto. Manto other than being the greatest short writer of his era also wrote Hindi film scripts and hence had access to all the juicy gossip. The point I am trying to make is that only an insider of a system can know how it fully works. But of course he may not be able to write about it, till he is a part of the system. Manto’s writings on Hindi films and its stars in the 1940s only happened once he had moved to Pakistan after the partition of India in 1947. When he became an outsider he chose to reveal all that he had learnt as an insider.
Tavleen Singh’s Durbar is along similar lines. As a good friend of Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, during the days when both of them had got nothing to do with politics, she had access to them like probably no other journalist did. Over the years she fell out first with Sonia and then probably with Rajiv as well.
Durbar does have some juicy gossip about the Gandhi family in the seventies. My favourite is the bit where Sonia and Maneka Gandhi had a fight over dog biscuits. But it would be unfair to call it just a book of gossip as some Delhi based reviewers have.
Tavleen Singh offers us some fascinating stuff on Operation Bluestar and the chamchas surrounding the Gandhi family and how they operated. The part that takes the cake though is the fact that Ottavio Quattrocchi and his wife were very close to Sonia and Rajiv Gandhi, despite Sonia’s claims now that she barely knew them. If there is one book you should be reading to understand how the political city of Delhi operates and why that has landed India in the shape that it has, this has to be it.
The Sanjay Story – Vinod Mehta (Harper Collins – Rs 499).
Technically this book shouldn’t be a part of the list given that it was first published in 1978 and has just been re-issued this year. But this book is as important now as it was probably in the late 1970s, when it first came out.
Mehta does a fascinating job of unravelling the myth around Sanjay Gandhi and concludes that he was the school boy who never grew up.
“Intellectually Sanjay had never encountered complexity. He was an I.S.C and at that educational level you are not likely to learn (through your educational training) the art of resolving involved problems… He himself confessed in 1976 that possibly his strongest intellectual stimulation came from comics,” writes Mehta.
The book goes into great detail about the excesses of the emergency era. From nasbandi to the censors taking over the media, it says it all. Sanjay was not a part of the government in anyway but ruled the country. And things are similar right now!
Patriots and Partisans – Ramachandra Guha (Penguin/Allen Lane – Rs 699)
The trouble with most Delhi based Indian intellectuals is that they have very strong ideologies. There sensitivities are either to the extreme left or the extreme right, and those in the middle are essentially stooges of the Congress party. Given that, India has very few intellectuals who are liberal in the strictest of the terms. Ramachandra Guha is one of them, his respect for Nehru and his slight left leanings notwithstanding. And what of course helps is the fact that he lives in Bangalore and not in Delhi.
His new book Patriots and Partisans is a collection of fifteen essays which largely deal with all that has and is going wrong in India. One of the finest essays in the book is titled A Short History of Congress Chamchagiri. This essay on its own is worth the price of the book. Another fantastic essay is titled Hindutva Hate Mail where Guha writes about the emails he regularly receives from Hindutva fundoos from all over the world.
His personal essays on the Oxford University Press, the closure of the Premier Book Shop in Bangalore and the Economic and Political Weekly are a pleasure to read. If I was allowed only to read two non fiction books this year, this would definitely be the second book. (Read my interview with Ramachandra Guha here).